Use of drones to study polar bears behaviour

The increase in temperatures that has been observed in the Arctic has resulted in a fast deterioration of the seasonal sea ice cover, being that the greatest threat to the polar bear (Ursus maritimus Phipps, 1774). Polar bears primarily hunt marine mammals using the sea-ice.

However, due to the decrease in the extent of this ice, they have difficulties foraging for their prey. Consequently, the decrease access to prey can cause a cycle of negative effects, from reduction in the body condition, to a decrease in the number of cubs and, in some regions, a population decline.

Despite the existence of a few studies that address the effect that climate induces on the extent of sea ice and consequently on polar bear populations, it is equally essential to understand the impacts that climate change can have on the individual behaviour of this species (e.g., increased demand for land resources; increase in human-bear conflicts). Thus, drones have become an important tool for wildlife conservation research since they are recognized as an alternative to traditional methods for data collection. Being an accessible and non-invasive tool, it can be a good alternative to collect data without disturbing wildlife.

Figure 1. Drone hovering over a polar bear on East Bay Island (Nunavut, Canada).

In this study, the authors highlight the benefits of using drones to study the behaviour of polar bears. They used drones to study the polar bear foraging behaviour on East Bay Island, Nunavut, Canada (64°01’47.00” N, 81 °47’16.7” W) over three field seasons (2016 – 2018).

Regarding the benefits that drone’s utilization can bring to study the polar bear behaviour, authors had divided them in the following fields:

  • Human and bear safety
  • Data collection and quality
  • Data storage and review
  • Collaboration opportunities with local communities

Besides those benefits, the authors also identify potential drone applications for polar bear behaviour research:

  • Foraging behaviour
  • Interspecific interactions
  • Human-bear interaction
  • Human safety and conflict mitigation
  • Den site location

Studying individual-level responses of polar bears to the effects of climate changes will allow to collect information about their individual behaviour and consequently may help to characterize population trends. The use of drones can be a very useful mechanism to understand the polar bear’s behaviour at an individual level on small spatial scales, where traditional mechanisms and researchers themselves are often unable to reach and monitor. In this way, the drone can be, presently and in the future, a crucial tool in helping the conservation of this species, providing data previously unknown to scientists.

Figure 2. Screenshot from drone of two polar bears swimming in the water off the shore of East Bay Island.

Authores: Joana Fragão e José Abreu

Source: Jagielski, P. M., Barnas, A. F., Grant Gilchrist, H., Richardson, E. S., Love, O. P., & Semeniuk, C. A. (2022). The utility of drones for studying polar bear behaviour in the Canadian Arctic: opportunities and recommendations. Drone Systems and Applications, 10(1), 97-110.


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